IN a State that is prone to seasonal hunger, instability in agricultural production, insufficient rain and a general depletion of natural resources, especially forest cover, the need to combat food insecurity is all the more acute. In Rajasthan, as in most parts of the country, one can find more people who face food insecurity than those who are nutritionally self-sufficient. The concentration of such people is high in the districts of Banswara, Dungarpur, Udaipur, Chittaurgarh, Sirohi, Kota and Baran.
The government does not deny that chronic hunger exists in the State at a time when the granaries are overflowing. But instead of lamenting about this, it has taken certain pro-active measures, one of them being the mid-day meal scheme for primary schoolchildren in government-run schools. One direct benefit of the scheme, apart from the one that it provides a meal for several poor, schoolchildren, has been a dramatic increase in the enrolment of girls. A broad study of the problem of insecurity has revealed that children (especially adolescent girls), women and specific community groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes constitute a major portion of those who are food insecure. The major reasons for vulnerability are perpetual poverty, poor forest cover, proneness to natural disasters, high concentration of below poverty line (BPL) families in selected areas such as Banswara and Dungarpur, a very low juvenile sex ratio, poor rural and health infrastructure and a high infant mortality rate.
Under the national nutrition programme, the State provides mid-day meals to primary schoolchildren. Under this, 300 calories and eight to 12 grams of protein are to be provided to each pupil daily. The concept of providing raw wheat slowly gave way to serving hot, cooked food called ghooghri. Launched on February 28, 2002, in some 16 districts, the scheme was subsequently introduced in all districts. The experience has been encouraging.
Gram panchayats are in charge of the mid-day meal scheme, and they operate it through local women's self-help groups. Thus teachers are required only to teach, and specific directions have been issued to keep teachers free from the task of preparing and serving food. There are separate committees to monitor the distribution, cooking and the inspection of food grain before lifting it from the godowns.
The programme, which was aimed at dealing with chronic malnourishment among children in the age group of six to 14 years, has not only given a fillip to enrolments but also enhanced interest in studies. School dropouts have returned to school following the commencement of the programme. But it is the jump in the enrolment of the girl children that has been most encouraging.
The State has shown its commitment to the mid-day meal scheme by allocating Rs.120 crores in the budget. Over 77 lakh children in 73,708 schools have benefited under this programme.
The underlying objective of this nutrition-based educational programme is to strengthen the universalisation of primary education and to ensure retention of the children in schools. But for the programme to succeed holistically, the government has to strengthen the infrastructure in government schools and make them as attractive and competitive as schools in the private sector, in the interest of social equity.